(This list originally appeared here in November 2004 in honor of Veterans' Day. It's been updated for Memorial Day, in which we honor those veterans of the American military who never made it home.)
The Cold, Hard Football Facts wake up every morning thankful they live in a remarkable country of such great fortune that we can spend our days devoted to the trivial joys of life. In our case, that means football, beer, travel, tailgating and writing. Yes, it's a comfy life we lead. Of course, the comforts of this society did not appear out of thin air. They were fought for and defended by men and women braver, tougher and more noble than we could pretend to be. This Memorial Day weekend, we take time out from our trivial pursuits to honor those who have fought for and defended our ideals over the past 230 years and who never made it home to enjoy the fruits of their sacrifices.
If you don't know about their contributions to our culture or their succesful efforts to free billions of people across the globe from oppressors, occupiers and tyrants, or if you're unaware of the importance of Saratoga, Gettysburg or Bastogne, we humbly suggest you take some time to learn more about them.
We've included a list of some of our favorite books to help get you started. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list of books about the sacrifices of America's veterans. It's simply a list of books that we've found very powerful and moving. It's heavy on World War II histories. We're open to any suggestions you may have about other books we should read, especially some that offer insight into the American Revolution -- one of the most important events in world history, but one that's been relegated by the nation's educators to an empty list of names and dates with no wider context.
And, of course, don't forget our future veterans: the active duty men and women serving today in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the globe.
"Band of Brothers" by Stephen Ambrose. Most people are familiar with the HBO series "Band of Brothers," which is remarkably faithful to the book and, in the irrefutable estimation of the Cold, Hard Football Facts, the greatest program ever made for television. But the book gives you a little more insight into the individual soldiers, who often flash in and out of scenes on TV. Ambrose died in 2002, but devoted his life to preserving the memories of America's World War II veterans. He's also the founder of the D-Day Museum in New Orleans.
"The Boys' Crusade" by Paul Fussell. Ambrose is more famous than Fussell, but he tends to glorify the men who fought in World War II. Fussell, a veteran of the war himself, writes dark, spare portraits of combat and of life in the military in general. This very short book includes lesser known accounts of the Hurtgen Forest and of the mass killing of German defenders in Operation Cobra and the Falaise Pocket, which broke open the post D-Day stalemate in France.
"Catch-22" by Joseph Heller. This novel by a veteran of a World War II bomber crew virtually defines the term "dark comedy" and gave the English language a new phrase to indicate a no-win situation. Catch-22 is an antiwar novel about a crewmember on a World War II bomber who's afraid of dying so he pretends he's insane hoping the doctors will ground him. The doctors say fear of death is perfectly sane, so they keep sending him back out on an ever-growing list of combat missions.
"The Day the American Revolution Began" by William H. Hallahan. On April 19, 1775, members of the world's most powerful army set out from Boston to capture leaders of colonial Massachusetts' shadow government. They were met at Lexington and then Concord, and chased all the way back to the capital, by a surprisingly well prepared citizen militia that had quietly been trained in modern military tactics. Within days, some 20,000 farmers from across New England had marched through the countryside and laid siege to the British army in Boston, turning it into a wartorn ghost town. Who betrayed to the colonists the British plan to attack Lexington and Concord? British General Thomas Gage blamed his American-born wife and sent her into exile in London. This book reveals the unfolding human drama of the individuals whose lives were inalterably changed on April 19, 1775 and who shaped one of the most important dates in world history.
"Flags of our Fathers" by James Bradley. You know that picture of the Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima? Sure you do. It's the most famous and (for Americans) most powerful war photo ever taken. This is a story about the six men in the photo – three of whom never made it off Iwo Jima – written by the son of one of the flag-raisers. You will weep many times reading this book.
"In Harm's Way" by Doug Stanton. In July 1945, the U.S.S. Indianapolis set sail from San Francisco to Tinian Island in the Pacific with the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima. Soon after delivering its cargo, the Indianapolis was torpedeod and sunk by a Japanese sub. Survivors of the initial attack floated helplessly for five days. Some went insane. Many were eaten by sharks. Only 317 members of a crew of 1,000 survived. This book tells the agonizing story of one of the worst disasters in U.S. naval history. The ship's story has reappeared numerous times in pop culture. In a pulsating scene from the classic movie "Jaws," surly captain Quint graphically reveals why he's devoted his life to hunting the kings of the deep: he's a survivor of the Indianapolis who watched as his friends were ripped apart by sharks.
"The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara. This is a historical novel, but remains faithful to the three-day bloodbath at Gettysburg, still the largest and perhaps the most important battle in American history and the one that turned the tide of the Civil War. Among the leading characters is Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, whose 20th Maine company held the far left end of the Union line and who literally saved the nation when he ordered his company to fix bayonets and charge after his troops had run out of ammunition. Chamberlain won the Medal of Honor for his conduct at Gettysburg. He miraculously survived multiple battlefield wounds and at the end of the war was chosen to accept the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee on behalf of the Union. He ordered his men to salute the defeated general.
"The Longest Day" by Cornelius Ryan. An Irishman wrote the seminal account of the 24 hours of D-Day that was later turned into the star-studded movie blockbuster of the same name. As is almost always the case, the book is better. Almost every image of D-Day the public holds in its collective memory today comes from Ryan's book. The Cold, Hard Football Facts used "The Longest Day" to map out our trip to the battlefields of Normandy for the 60th anniversary of D-Day in 2004.
"A Rumor of War" by Philip Caputo. Lt. Caputo was in one of the first "official" combat units to hit the ground in Vietnam in early 1965 and saw the worst the war had to offer. He wrote this account of his time in Vietnam and in combat a full decade later, but it is considered by many the best book about the war.
"Slaughterhouse-Five" by Kurt Vonnegut. Near the end of World War II, American and British bombers obliterated the eastern German city of Dresden, killing 135,000 people. Vonnegut, who served in the American army, survived the bombing and the massive firestorm it created with other POWs who were kept in an underground slaughterhouse. This semi-autobiographical work of science fiction centers on a former POW who survived the bombing. It's one of the most brilliant novels ever written.
"The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien. O'Brien is an amazing writer and a Vietnam veteran who was deeply affected by his service in the military. "The Things They Carried" inhabits a hallucinatory world somewhere between novel and short story collection. It begins with a list of the material items the men in his unit carried in the jungles of Vietnam. It quickly evolves into a portrayal of the deeper emotional issues many Vietnam veterans still carry.
"To Hell and Back" by Audie Murphy. The movie is a staple of Veterans' and Memorial Day television. It doesn't do justice to this autobiography by America's most decorated World War II veteran. If you think you're a tough guy, you'll feel a little different after reading about Murphy's endless months of combat in Europe. He won the Medal of Honor after almost single-handedly destroying an advance by a German company. He ordered his outnumbered men to fall back, then mounted a burning tank and turned its 50-caliber machine gun on the German troops while calling in artillery support. You'll be shocked at how young Murphy was when you consider the movie, starring a baby-faced Murphy as himself, was made 10 years after the war.
"War's End" by Maj. Gen. Charles Sweeney. Sweeney is the only man to fly both atomic bomb missions. He was the pilot of "Bock's Car," the plane that dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki. This is his account of his role in one of the most important and controversial events in human history. Sweeney grew up in Quincy, Mass. and died last year in neighboring Milton. He wrote the book in response to what he believed was a wave of revisionist history that ignored a key fact: if the bombs were not dropped, the U.S. and its allies would have been forced to launch an invasion of mainland Japan that military experts believe would have cost millions of lives.
"All Quiet on the Western Front" by Erich Maria Remarque. Yes, it's about a German soldier in World War I. But few works in the history of literature give a more stark, brutal portrayal of the life of a soldier. It will make you realize that in many wars – and certainly in World War I – the victims are found in those two lines of young soldiers facing each other.